COVID-19 plunges students into uncertainty

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Washing your hands is all well and good, but what about those struggling with a lack of services. Sarah Carrier

Daily campus updates disguise fact that the government should do more

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country rises into the hundreds – more than 50 of those in Saskatchewan as of press time, but almost certainly much more by the time of publication – governments and institutions across Canada have begun shuttering their doors, telling those who can to work from home, cancelling on-site classes and large gatherings, closing schools, and otherwise attempting to stanch the spread of the novel coronavirus whose reach few could have anticipated when the media first began reporting on it in late December 2019. Canadians have been urged to practice social distancing, and on Mar. 23, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the country to “go home and stay home.”

The timing of the virus’ arrival in Canada has meant that academic institutions are navigating an unprecedented shake-up in the waning weeks of the winter semester. Although the first case of the novel coronavirus hit Canada on Jan. 25, it wasn’t until the beginning of March that this country began to see the exponential increase in cases that has led to the closures of universities and K-12 institutions across the country. On Mar. 13, the Carillon reported that the U of R would be transitioning to online classes.

“We’re kind of in limbo,” said University of Regina student Katelyn Johnson. “I wish they would just make the semester pass/fail.” Johnson said it has been difficult to focus on her schoolwork as the university shuts down services one by one – the Archer library, the only place for some students to access computers and the internet, announced it would be closed indefinitely from Mar/ 23 on – and she worries about how she will pay rent. “I work for a small business and they had to close,” Johnson said. Since she only works full-time during the summer months, any income she receives from EI will be especially meagre.

University-aged people are already a demographic that has been hard hit by austerity cuts to public services. 17.4 per cent of people who live in poverty in Saskatchewan are between the ages of 18-30 and a 2016 report found that 39 per cent of students struggle with food insecurity. A similar study in 2018 found that around 70,000 Canadian students experience homelessness every year. Nairn MacKay, an anti-poverty advocate who has had years of experience living below the poverty line says that when it comes to the pandemic, the situation facing students, particularly their housing situation, will worsen the crisis. “This is a catastrophe waiting to happen that affects students.”

One student, who asked that their name be withheld because “the world doesn’t need to know how poor I am” said that now that the library has closed, they have no way to access a computer or the internet. “I borrowed a laptop like every single day,” the student said. “Now I’m going to have to try to write my final papers on the notes app.”

With the province stepping in to rescind the Regina’s emergency measures – against the wishes of the mayor and council – and offering little in the form of relief to Saskatchewan residents, it has been students themselves who are stepping up to take care of one another. The Sikh Students’ Association (SSA) in particular has started a “No Hungry Tummies” campaign, where they buy groceries for those in need and deliver them to their doorstep.

The campus club, which formed in September 2018, didn’t hesitate when it came time to jump into service mode. “When the first case was announced in Saskatchewan, that’s when we were like, ‘yeah, it’s here in Saskatchewan now and people who have no family here are going to suffer,” said Sumandeep Kaur, an SSA member who started as an international student herself eight years ago.

Jaspal Singh, another member of the SSA said that supporting the community in times of crisis is just part of what it means to be a Sikh. “A core pillar of Sikhi is what we call ‘selfless service,’” Singh said, adding that one of the principles of selfless service is “food and freedom for everyone.”

“In the time of need we should be serving the community.”

And this time of need is likely to be a long one. The pandemic has only just begun here, and many people, especially students and other young people, have already been living on the razors edge of financial ruin for a long time. Although it is inspiring when residents provide mutual aid – the exchange of resources and services for the mutual benefit of all – and community service, what is needed is wide-scale relief from the government, including the suspension of all rent and utilities, a minimum of $2000 monthly in direct financial support to every Canadian, without restriction, for the duration of the crisis (and after), and legislation providing hazard pay to all frontline workers, including those who work in pharmacies, grocery stores and other essential industries.

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